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Many international health policies recognise the World Health Organization’s (2008) vision that communities should be involved in shaping primary healthcare services. However, researchers continue to debate definitions, models, and operational challenges to community participation. Furthermore, there has been no use of implementation theory to study how community participation is introduced and embedded in primary healthcare in order to generate insights and transferrable lessons for making this so. Using Normalisation Process Theory (NPT) as a conceptual framework, this qualitative study was designed to explore the levers and barriers to the implementation of community participation in primary healthcare as a routine way of working.
We conducted two qualitative studies based on a national Initiative designed to support community participation in primary care in Ireland. We had a combined multi-stakeholder purposeful sample (n = 72), utilising documentary evidence (study 1), semi-structured interviews (studies 1 and 2) and focus groups (study 2). Data generation and analysis were informed by Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) Research Methodology and NPT.
For many stakeholders, community participation in primary healthcare was a new way of working. Stakeholders did not always have a clear, shared understanding of the aims, objectives and benefits of this way of working and getting involved in a specific project sometimes provided this clarity. Drivers/champions, and strong working partnerships, were considered integral to its initiation and implementation. Participants emphasised the benefits of funding, organisational support, training and networking to enact relevant activities. Health-promoting activities and healthcare consultation/information events were generally successful, but community representation on interdisciplinary Primary Care Teams proved more challenging. Overall, participants were broadly positive about the impacts of community participation, but were concerned about the scope to sustain the work without the ‘protected’ space and resources that the national Initiative afforded.
Despite the success of specific activities undertaken as part of a community process in Irish primary healthcare, the likelihood of this becoming a routine way of working in Ireland is low. Analysing the learning from this process using NPT provides theoretically informed recommendations that are transferrable to other settings and can be used to prospectively design and formatively evaluate community participation processes.